Tennis: Australian Open - Hingis uses mind to beat muscle

Mauresmo overcomes insults but cannot match intelligence of irresistible Swiss rival
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The Independent Online
THE SIZE of Amelie Mauresmo's shoulders and biceps has been the talk of the Australian Open but in yesterday's women's final muscles were no match for mental resilience.

Martina Hingis was sharp, focused and determined as she clinched a hat- trick of victories at this, the first Grand Slam of the season, in 67 minutes. Though the French 19-year-old made a closer match of it than the 6-2, 6-3 scoreline might suggest and although Hingis is a year younger, the Swiss girl was in no doubt about the asset which had landed her the title and first prize of pounds 270,000.

"Being mentally tougher was why I won today," she said after accepting the plaudits of the Melbourne Park crowd as champion for the third successive year. "Physically I would not have a chance against her but it's good that in tennis the mind is more important than anything else. You need to be in good shape to win some of the points, but tennis is not something like athletics where being second can be important. There are a lot of mental things in tennis you have to learn and handle and since there was attention on me from the age of nine or 10 it has been normal for me to deal with it."

The furore over her physical shape forced Mauresmo to practise in secret for the fina,l after her semi-final victim, the world No 1 Lindsay Davenport, had said: "A couple of times I thought I was playing a guy", and Hingis had referred to the openly gay Mauresmo as "half a man".

Mauresmo took her phone off the hook but received many faxed messages of support from her homeland, including one from Yannick Noah, whose 1983 French Open victory inspired her to take up tennis just before her fourth birthday.

Davenport and Hingis both claimed their comments had been taken out of context and The Women's Tennis Association, who are looking for a new sponsor, were involved in swift damage limitation efforts.

Hingis said she had spoken "quietly" on court to Mauresmo about it during the final and added: "It's only between us, I think, and I'm not going to talk about it." Asked if she had apologised, Hingis said: "There's nothing to apologise for."

Before commenting that she, too, did not want to discuss the matter any further, Mauresmo said Davenport and Hingis had apologised and that it had all been "a little bit stupid".

Mauresmo's coach, Christophe Fourniere, was not as forgiving. "Davenport not only apologised but wrote a personal note to Amelie," he said. "But there was nothing from Hingis. Her behaviour was disappointing and Amelie told her that on court today. Hingis said Amelie was half a man because she lives with a woman [the St Tropez bar owner Sylvie Bourdon] and that's really not acceptable. After all, she has got certain responsibilities given the position she holds in tennis."

The 5ft 7in Hingis had needed three sets to overcome Mauresmo in their two previous matches, both played in 1998, but yesterday she was clearly boosted by the statistic of having won her previous 20 matches at the Australian Open and having gone through this year's event without conceding a set. "This is my surface, my territory," she said. "I felt very confident going into the tournament. I was very excited about playing here, felt I was in good form and had a big chance to win again. And I played some great tennis."

The two girls - competing in the first all-teenage women's final at this event since Margaret Smith beat Jan Lehane in 1961 - were a marked fashion contrast. Hingis, in a tailored dress, wore a gold watch, diamond earrings and a ring on her wedding finger (a present which she bought herself as an anticipated celebration gift), while Mauresmo, in shorts and a tank top which emphasised the width of her shoulders, looked as if she was headed for a game on a public parks court.

The contrast extended to their play; the elegance of Hingis versus the raw power of Mauresmo. After her demolition of Davenport, much had been made of Mauresmo's high-powered one-handed backhand but it failed to disrupt the Swiss rhythm. Hingis wrapped up the first set in 28 minutes with her only ace of the match and explained afterwards that she had spent more time at the net than usual because Mauresmo did not have a huge passing shot, adding that she considered one-handed backhands like her opponent's were "usually the sign of a big weakness and do not beat me".

After the finalists had exchanged service breaks early in the second set, nearly all the drama of this match was compressed into the last two games when Hingis captured the Mauresmo serve again to lead 4-3. Hingis then fell love-40 behind on her own serve, only to reel off five straight points to win the game.

Then Mauresmo, who had saved two match points in her first-round contest with the American, Corina Morariu, showed similar fighting spirit in a game which went to deuce eight times and in which she saved six match points before netting a forehand volley.

The title was the fifth singles Grand Slam title for Hingis, and marked the third year in a row that she has landed both singles and doubles championships at the Australian Open. "The score pretty much said it all," she claimed. "I made the important points when I really needed to." She called it "a fun match" and added: "I always make a great start to the year here in Australia."

Victory did not regain her the No 1 ranking, but she added: "It would be great if I could do that this year." Mauresmo will move from her present ranking of 29 to a place inside the top 20, and Hingis considers the French girl, who was the world junior champion in 1996, has the potential to get into the top 10. Mauresmo admitted the pressure of her first Grand Slam final was immense. "I'm going to have to learn how to deal with that," she said.